Democratic Race Sows Labor Disunion

Times Staff Writer

John Campbell is a blue-collar philosopher who routinely steps off the factory floor at the Firestone tire plant here to marshal fellow foot soldiers in the United Steelworkers Union on causes close to their hearts, minds and wallets.

The 47-year-old high school dropout often joins forces with Judy Lowe -- a no-nonsense single mother and an organizer for white-collar government workers -- to knock on doors, dial telephones and stage cold-weather rallies to get out the vote for politicians sympathetic to working families.

For years, Iowa's industrial and service unions have generally acted as one clan, one unified political force. But the effort to choose a Democratic candidate to oppose President Bush in the 2004 election has caused fissures in this traditionally ironclad solidarity.

Worried over factory closings and loss of jobs, 21 industrial unions across America are backing Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who is known as labor's man in Washington, D.C. Workers in overalls and hard hats want to show their continued loyalty to a politician who has amassed a near perfect voting record in favor of their causes.

But this month, the nation's two largest service employee unions -- the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union -- broke ranks with their labor brethren to support Howard Dean. Not only has the former Vermont governor promised to focus on health care -- a key issue for the two unions -- but white-collar loyalists say Dean has the best chance of beating Bush and returning the White House to the Democrats.

In Iowa, the site of the Jan. 19 caucuses that kick off the battle for the Democratic nomination, the rift within the ranks of organized labor has pitted steelworkers against nurses, machinists against government secretaries and auto workers against public administrators.

And for the first time, it has caused John Campbell to face off against Judy Lowe.

"This is new ground for me, to wage total war against people like Judy that you worked so closely with in the past," says Campbell, who is working as a union organizer during a six-month break from the factory, which manufactures tires for tractors and behemoth earth-movers.

With their respective union support, Dean and Gephardt have tapped into well-oiled machines of political organizing. Campbell and Lowe are emblematic of hundreds of savvy, streetwise union veterans in Iowa who are relying on old relationships -- while creating new ones -- in their effort to get fellow union members to support their candidate.

Their efforts -- the road miles and long hours -- are a major reason either Dean or Gephardt is expected to win in Iowa.

Campbell, a self-admitted recovering alcoholic who quotes German philosophers and Irish poets, has brought his message to church meetings and social gatherings at union halls, working-class bars and coffeehouses. He's visited retired union members to ask that they not turn their backs on a cause so important to those workers still laboring on the assembly line. And he's returned to the Firestone factory during the graveyard shift to visit with fellow line workers, passing out pamphlets and signing up new Gephardt supporters.

Lowe, a 50-year-old mother of two grown children, has her own style as an AFSCME organizer. At one recent Dean rally at a Des Moines high school gymnasium, she helped distribute egg cartons that contained not eggs but materials to help supporters each recruit another 12 Dean followers. The slogan: "Dozens for Dean."

Lowe and her public sector colleagues have also tapped into a more modern resource: the Internet. Unlike many industrial unions that send out their twice weekly blast e-mails mostly to union halls, the Dean campaign and its supporters are using cyberspace to raise money and pinpoint their message.

At Dean's campaign Web site, members from various unions can go to a page specifically designed for their interests -- a place where they can contribute both time and money.

Still, in terms of reaching people, "there is no better tactic than union members getting out and talking to other union members face-to-face," said Gina Glanz, a political strategist for the service employees union. "That means going to the break rooms at the work place and talking about issues. That's what brings votes."

That's especially important in Iowa, a state of almost 3 million people where analysts predict that some 100,000 voters will turn out for the caucus process, which takes place in winter, when traveling can be hazardous. And it's not just snow and wind that challenge turnout. In the caucuses, casting a vote isn't as easy as just pulling a lever.

Instead, Iowans gather at thousands of meeting places -- fire stations, civic centers and even each other's living rooms. There they discuss the candidates and the issues before the voting begins.

"You're asking people to leave their homes on one of the coldest, snowiest nights of the year," said Chuck Rocha of the Alliance for Economic Justice, an umbrella group that represents 95,000 industrial union members in Iowa. "Even if the issues are important, that takes a heck of a lot of persuasion."

On a frigid night in mid-November, John Campbell entered the sprawling Firestone tire plant in his native Des Moines.

For 15 years, Campbell shoveled the dusty residue from the tire-making process in the 68-acre factory, which is so loud workers must wear earplugs. It is a forbidding place where the steam and humidity can push temperatures to 130 degrees.

But on this midnight shift, Campbell has come to rally union votes. He visits the break room and receives bear hugs from the familiar faces and sweaty men he calls "brother." He asks them to do themselves a favor: Sign a voter registration card and come out Jan. 19 in favor of Gephardt.

The pitch is an easy sell. Steelworkers at the plant are in a bitter battle with management over pay and health-care issues. They have seen sister plants close shop and move to Mexico or elsewhere. They have seen the number of manufacturing jobs in America drop 30% since the end of World War II. Even though many find their jobs dreary and repetitive, they want to keep them.

Workers see Gephardt as a "fellow brother who walks the walk." They know that Gephardt fought President Clinton over the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, arguing it would cost the United States industrial jobs.

"Dick Gephardt is a proven friend, and union men stand behind our friends," said Campbell. "The man is beyond reproach. And I wouldn't say that about many politicians. I wouldn't even say that about myself."

The battle for votes in Iowa has made Campbell count his blue-collar blessings. One night he knocked on the door of a laid-off steelworker. The man, looking gaunt and tired, told Campbell he hadn't eaten.

"How do you tell a guy who doesn't even have a job to get involved in the process?" he said. "I saw the anguish in his eyes, and it hurt me. But I encouraged him to come out. Told him his vote made a difference. Because I believe it does."

At the Iowa capital building in Des Moines, Judy Lowe does some campaigning of her own. A former events coordinator for the state of Iowa, she once knew just about every service worker at the capital.

As the sluggish economy caused cuts in state jobs, Lowe saw her staff slashed from eight to three and found her herself stuck with doing the work of four people. She blamed the Bush administration's economic policies. So she quit to go work for AFSCME and against a second Bush term.

Getting the word out for a Dean rally, she walks the capital floor, pinching the cheek of one old friend, playfully rubbing the back of another. "Come out and see what Howard Dean is all about," she says.

Lowe is plain-spoken with an Oklahoma twang. Her wry humor reminds many friends of the main character on the television sitcom "Roseanne."

She's seen Dean speak on many occasions, and she likes what she hears. She likes his ability to raise money and inspire supporters. She has watched how his national campaign has aggressively networked among Democrats, using the face-to-face tactics used by the unions themselves.

But the woman who avidly watches C-SPAN in her spare time mostly likes Dean's populist message.

"The current administration is not friendly to families, and we need a candidate who can take him on and win," she says. "Dean is that man."

Not everyone in her union is sold on him, however. "People will come up to me at meetings and ask, 'So where did this guy Dean come from?' It's not hostile. It's just a legitimate question," she says.

And Lowe tells them.

"A year ago, Howard Dean wasn't even a speck on the radar screen. But he has shown an ability to raise money and excite minds. He has earned our endorsement," she says.

Then she leans in close, almost like a conspirator.

"If someone would have told me three months ago that I'd be out here working for Howard Dean, I would have laughed. But here I am. And I think he's going to win. We've just got to keep our eye on the prize."

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